Sunday, October 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Government Must Protect Experts on Extremism, Moscow Legal Specialist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 18 – As the number of cases requiring expert evaluation of extremism grows, a Moscow legal specialist says, the work of those who provide such assessments is becoming “dangerous and thus less attractive.” To avoid future problems, he adds, the Russian government must ensure their security, something it does not now do.
Speaking to a St. Petersburg conference on coping with extremism in Russian society last week, Viktor Monakhov of Institute of State and Law also called for giving such experts new “stimuli,” including the creation of a Nikolay Girenko Prize – named after the ethnographer who was murdered in 2004 because of his expert testimony.
Whether Monakhov’s calls will be heeded remains an open question, but other speakers at the session pointed to other problems facing Russian courts and the use of expert witnesses, especially because in the opinion of many rights activists, the experts are often “in error” (
Indeed, some of these activists said that it is now possible that “a pensioner dissatisfied with the work of the organs of local self-administration” could find himself charged with violating Russia’s anti-extremist laws on the basis of the judgments of experts on whom the courts and other officials choose to rely.
However that may be, it is certainly the case that ever more Russians are being charged with such crimes. Aleksandr Brod, the head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau and a member of the Social Chamber, said that the number of such cases had grown from 130 in 2004 to 460 in 2008 and is now on pace to exceed 500 this year.
Because Paragraph 282 of the Russian criminal code which deals with extremism is so unclear, Brod continued, the powers that be could charge anyone they wanted to with having violated it, putting “enormous responsibility” on those experts asked by prosecutors and judges to evaluate particular texts and statements.
Some lawyers, including Boris Panteleyev who spoke at the St. Petersburg conference, believe that the law should be revised and more precise definitions of extremism provided so that “law enforcement organs in general could operate without the help of experts and independently analyze any particular violation.”
But not everyone agreed that would be a good thing: Valentina Uzunova, who has served as an expert on nationalist cases for “more than eight years,” said she had “never heard criticism” of what her office has done and that she was confident that “without an expert, not a single jurist will be able to work.”
Uzunova did acknowledge that the experts are now overwhelmed. At present, she told the conference, there are only 10 people in St. Petersburg involved with such work despite the “constantly growing” number of cases. And consequently, she said, “it is not surprising that sometimes errors occur.”
But another report suggests why experts along with other officials involved with the courts in Russia may be increasingly worried about their security. “Komsomolskaya Pravda” reported that Russians are increasingly coming to court “armed to the teeth” and thus a threat to those working there or involved in controversial cases (
Last week, the paper reported that during the first nine months of 2009, guards at Russian courts confiscated more than 13,000 guns, 13,000 gas pistols, and various other arms, 42 percent more than during the same period a year ago. Most of those carrying them, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” said, had the legal right to do so.
But not all, “certain ‘hot heads,’” it continued appeared to be prepared to take the law into their own hands. Although the paper said one could “only guess” why this upward trend was occurring, it suggested that it was at least possible that “people have simply finally ceased to believe in just sentences” and thus hope to “achieve them on their own.”

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